Smoke traveling from the western wildfires reaches the entire US, bringing vivid red sunsets and moonglows east. But it also has poor air quality and harmful health effects thousands of miles away from the flames.
Major fires have been active burning for weeks in the western US and Canada. Currently the largest in the US is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which has now burned more than 600 square miles of land and grown so large generates its own weather.
For days, the eastern states are trapped in a smoky haze emanating from the fires across the country. Smoke has descended over major cities nearly 3,000 miles from the fires, including: Philadelphia and New York, and even in the eastern parts of Canada.
It is the second year in a row that there is smoke rook traveled so far east. The view has become normal during the forest fire season because climate change has made fires more intense, longer lasting and more dangerous.
Julie Malingowski, an emergency meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told NPR that smoke pushed high into the atmosphere at the site of the fires is now being pushed toward the eastern states.
“We’re seeing quite a bit of smoke on the surface in parts of the eastern US,” she said.
“Normally, as smoke moves further away from the active fire, the smoke tends to spread to higher parts of the atmosphere, so it’s not as thick at the surface,” Malingowski said. But she said this time an area of high pressure pushing smoke to the surface.
Air quality warnings across the east
The result is a spate of air quality warnings across the eastern states, including: Connecticut and Maryland. The warnings range from orange to red – orange means sensitive groups are at risk of being affected, and red means all people living in the area are at risk.
Particulate matter over long distances is the culprit. Microscopic particles called PM2.5 have been injected into smoke high in the atmosphere and have traveled downwind to distant cities.
At 2.5 microns, the particles are small enough to penetrate the human lungs. They aggravate respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and can disrupt oxygen exchange, says Sheryl Magzamen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University.
PM2.5 can be especially dangerous when poor air quality warnings are not associated with smoke from distant fires, Magzamen told NPR.
“If that smoke is associated with a local fire, our research actually showed that there are fewer hospitalizations and ER visits on average because people protect themselves from the smoke and fire,” she said. “But if you’re far from them…there’s not that same kind of warning system, because the fire doesn’t put you in any danger.”
Malingowski says the smoke will likely linger as long as the fires rage and the weather stays dry.
“As long as active fires are burning and high pressure remains in the central part of the United States, many locations will see at least some reduction in visibility in their area east of the Rockies,” she said.
“Once fire activity subsides and precipitation comes back into focus for places that get this reduction in smoke visibility, that will help reduce the smoke impact,” she added.
Josie Fischels is an intern at NPR’s News Desk.
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